5 Fascinating Facts about the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi


One of the greatest sights in Rome, Italy that has attracted visitors from the world over is the stunning Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, also known as “the Fountain of Four Rivers.” Though this gorgeous display of art is probably on your must-see list for travel, what else do you know about it? The Fountain of the Four Rivers is more than just sculptures and water, it has a fascinating history too.

1. The fountain’s theme

Though the fountain was designed in a far more superfluous fashion than what the locals had originally wanted, it was made to serve as a source of potable water before the age of indoor plumbing. When Pope Innocent X had it designed, he decided to have the sculptures crafted around a slim Egyptian obelisk. Ringing the obelisk were figures that represented four major rivers throughout the four major continents recognized during the 1600s:

  • The River Ganges of Asia – the depiction of the god looks away from the church as a sign of spiritual ignorance of the hedonistic world;
  • The Rio de la Plata of America – the man has thrown his hands up, but through them, he sees the light of salvation. However, this is also thought to be because of the presence of the snake, which may be hinting to man’s fear of losing his money;
  • The Danube of Europe – considered the most “cultured” of the four gods, the Danube looks directly at the Church, embracing the Lord;
  • The Nile of Africa – the artist decided to make this statue with his head covered by a piece of cloth, because at the time, the source of the Nile River was unknown. Also, the concealed face symbolizes ignorance towards Christianity.

Surrounding the four marble gods are flowers and wildlife. You can pick out a horse, serpent, dolphin, crocodile, lion, and a couple of other animals from the continents where the four rivers are found.

Since the unveiling of the fountain, it has been called the epitome of Baroque design and theatricality. The round shape allows for you to see every angle as you walk around it. Additionally, the detailing of the individual figures plays out like the chapter of a story, and a full tour of the fountain brings you from beginning to close of a wonderful tale.

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2. About the artist

Though the creation of the Fountain of the Four Rivers is awarded to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, he is not the sole artist. However, during the commission, Bernini was one of the most popular artists in Rome.

The other artist was Borromini, who was Bernini’s rival during the Baroque period. He proposed placing a crown upon the obelisk as well as four gods to represent the four great rivers.

How Bernini was given the job over Borromini was, in many ways, pure luck and the advantage that was the social networking of that period – shaking hands with the right people. When the Pope saw the ideas Bernini had for the fountain, he made the decision to have Bernini complete the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.

3. Met with opposition

The crafting of the fountain was originally met with opposition by the Roman people. During the time of the construction, Italy was in the grip of a severe famine and people could barely support their families let alone pay taxes for the fountain.

Despite this, Pope Innocent X had the fountain built throughout 1646-1648. Throughout the plaza where the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi was being built, there were endless talks of riots.

In September 1648, protesting writers inscribed “We don’t want Obelisks and Fountains! It’s bread we want. Bread, bread, bread!” into the rocks used to build the obelisk. Innocent X quickly had the authors of the inscriptions arrested and then placed disguised spies to monitor the area around the fountain at all times.

4. About the Obelisk

The obelisk was crafted from Aswan granite by the order of the Roman Emperor Domitianus. The spire is sixteen meters tall (52 feet) and originally stood at the central wall (the spina) of the ancient Circus of Maxentius, which was near the Via Appia Antica.

Some people get mistaken by thinking it is an authentic Egyptian obelisk due to the hieroglyphics, but it is merely a Roman representation. The hieroglyphs tell of a hymn pertaining to the Domitian. Atop the obelisk sits a stone pigeon, the symbol of Pope Innocent X’s family.

5. Where to find the Fountain of the Four Rivers

The Fountain of the Four Rivers is located in the Piazza Navona in Rome. It took the place of the Circus Domitian that had been opened around 86 AD. The circus lasted well into the 4th century. The surroundings undergone reconstruction throughout the years, and as the 15th buildings started to form a perimeter around the circus, it became a popular open market called Piazza Navona.

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Though the Fountain of the Four Rivers is not the Trevi Fountain, it is still a jaw dropping image. You are sure to enjoy the intricate details of the statues as well as the quiet. Join in on the people-watching, shop the surrounding markets, and indulge in the tranquil sounds of trickling water. Maybe you will even have the chance to share this information with a fellow traveler.